October 23, 2011

Prison Program Leads to Law School

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It took time in prison — and classes offered through Cornell — for Keir Weimer to realize that he wanted to encounter a different side of the law.

During his three-and-a-half year incarceration for second-degree manslaughter, Weimer took two classes as part of Cornell Prison Education Program this spring.

According to Weimer, his participation in the program will allow him to graduate this December with a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics from Syracuse University, and he is currently applying to law schools, including Cornell’s.

Although Weimer said he decided to pursue law before getting involved with the CPEP, the classes “were important because they allowed me to get back to a formal educational atmosphere and really kind of solidified my desire to practice law,” he said.

In July 2006, Weimer, then a student at Syracuse, was piloting a boat in a lake in the Adirondacks while intoxicated. The boat crashed ashore, killing Tiffany Heitkamp, one of Weimer’s friends on the boat.

Weimer, who had been convicted two previous times for drunk driving, was sentenced to two to six years in prison for second-degree manslaughter in November 2007.

Jim Schechter, executive director of the CPEP, pointed out the constructive implications of the program for inmates in addition to Weimer.

“[CPEP] gives them a productive outlet where they can realize their potential. It bolsters their sense of self-esteem and gives them real skills to navigate life on the inside and prepare them for reentry into their community,” he said.

Schechter described the education wing in the prisons as “a sanctuary for incarcerated students from the rest of their lives in prison.”

Weimer echoed the sentiment.

“These classes and the CPEP experience allowed for a forum, for an oasis for those who were hungry for those things — for education, betterment, growth — it allowed them to pursue that,” he said.

But even before Weimer’s experience with CPEP, his experience in prison forced him to confront his demons and come to the realization that he had an alcohol problem.

“This wasn’t just an accident; it was a culmination of years of irresponsible behavior and a careless attitude,” he said. “I wasn’t able to come to that realization until I sat by myself in a cell and was able to look at things through the prism of prison, because I wasn’t able to get outside of my life before.”

Weimer’s experience as an inmate showed him a “newfound respect for the law, for order, for governance, for authority, that I never had before,” he said.

“Through a difficult period of growth and maturation and being alone and having to do a lot of soul-searching, I realized that I wanted to find my way back to academia,” he said.

He decided that not only did he want to return to school, but that he wanted to become a lawyer.

“Because now that I had been on the one side of the law, I think having that perspective of that side of the criminal law system might be very valuable, not just to my education but to that of my peers,” he said.

Weimer served much of his sentence at the Cayuga Correctional Facility, a medium security prison about 20 miles north of Ithaca, and one of two prisons at which Cornell faculty and graduate students teach college-level liberal arts classes to inmates through CPEP. The credits the inmates receive can help them earn an associates degree at Cayuga Community College.

One of Weimer’s teachers, Prof. Paul Swanson, law, said Weimer was an avid participator.

“This is a guy who really wants to take advantage of educational opportunities and contribute to the legal system, which is pretty cool,” Swanson said.

Swanson also said he was surprised by how objectively the inmates in the class approached the law.

“I wondered when we talked to them if they’d have a bias toward the legal system, but they had very ethical compasses,” Swanson said. He said he was “impressed by the way they grappled with the legal system, given what’s been probably a pretty tough experience with the legal system for them.”

Although inmates must meet a certain educational level through either a high school diploma or a GED to participate in the program, Weimer’s background as a college student made him an unusual participant in CPEP.

“Most of my classmates weren’t that far along in their education. One could argue that this was actually more inspiring and valuable to those who are just starting out in a path of higher learning, who haven’t had the experience I’ve had,” he said.

But even if Weimer gets into law school, he may face additional hurdles in becoming a lawyer. He will have to submit an application to a New York State Supreme Court Committee of Character and Fitness, which will decide if he can sit for the bar.

Weimer, however, said he believes his work and determination will pay off.

“I have to place faith in something, and that’s it, and I have to put my best foot forward. It’s a calculated risk, not a gamble, I don’t think,” he said.

Original Author: Emma Court